Sunday, September 25, 2016

Prayer 101: Sermon on the Lord's Prayer

When we left the Sermon on the Mount last week, Jesus gave us two key instructions on prayer. First of all, prayer isn't meant to be a performance; don't do it like the hypocrites do, to be seen by others (Matthew 6:5-6). And second, prayer isn't meant to be a tiresome and laborious search for the perfect words to please God, like the pagan Gentiles tried (Matthew 6:7). So Jesus teaches us here a short prayer with tight lines – in Greek, fifty-seven; in English, fifty-two; in Latin, forty-nine; in Syriac, closest to the original Aramaic, just thirty-five words in all (Matthew 6:9-13).

And how does Jesus begin this model prayer? How does he teach us to address God? As Master? As Lord? As King? No – as Father (Matthew 6:9). That's it, that one word. Not a long string of titles, like in Greek and Roman prayers, trying to impress and flatter their gods by heaping up eloquent and creative things to call them. Jesus doesn't even require us to use the standard Jewish benediction: “O Lord our God, King of the Universe.” He just tells us to address God as 'Father.' He wasn't the only Jew who did, of course. We have other writings that pray to God as “O Lord, my Father and Master of my life” (Sirach 23:1) or simply pray, “You are my Father” (Sirach 51:10). And to call God 'Father' ties together the images of Creator, Lord, and Redeemer. Because a father, ideally, is a source of life, a provider, a protector.

Israel already knew that God was their Father. He'd said so in the eleventh chapter of Hosea. And there, God portrays Israel as a child and talks about raising him from infancy. “When Israel was a child, I loved him … It was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they didn't know that I'd healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love … I bent down to them and fed them” (Hosea 11:1-4). Can you picture that – the image there – of God bending low and spoonfeeding his people like a squirming infant? God goes on to talk about Israel's rebellion, what a wicked child Israel has become, and how he needs to discipline them... but when God thinks of giving them up, “my heart recoils within me; my heart grows warm and tender; I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:8-9).

That's what Jesus means when he invites us to think of God as a Father. Tender. Loving. Teaching. Personally involved. Providing for us in our helplessness. Loving us even in our rebellion. Ready to discipline, but readier still to embrace. Committed to our good. That's the kind of father God is. And Jesus was known for calling God Abba – not just 'Father,' but Abba, an incredibly intimate and affectionate word – in some countries, still to this day the first word a child might learn. That just heightens the tenderness of this prayer. There's no great distance, no estrangement – just us and our Abba Father. 

That's what we get to call God – which is utterly amazing, when you think about it, isn't it? The hypocrites Jesus lambasts in his sermon turned family time into an occasion to show themselves off – and for those of you here who are fathers, wouldn't that be such a strange thing, to see your kids boast of how fancy they can be in talking to you? And the pagans kept worrying that if they didn't get the words just right, they wouldn't get access; that their gods wouldn't hear them. 

Sometimes we have the same fears. But we aren't supposed to. Jesus is telling us to set all that aside – throw our fears, our anxieties to the wind – stop fretting and just come close to God! When you think of God mainly as King, as Master, well, yeah, it's easy to doubt what right you have to approach him. But when the king is your dad, that's a different story, isn't it? The king's little ones can totter into his room at 3 AM to ask for a cup of water. Jesus invites us to approach God like that. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).

But Jesus doesn't stop with just having us call God 'Father.' In this prayer, we address God as “Our Father.” And that's something interesting. This isn't a prayer for just anybody. Because, except in a more distant and much more metaphorical sense, most people in the world don't have God as their Father. In the Old Testament, it was the people of Israel to whom God presented himself as a Father. And in the New Testament, the more intimate Fatherhood of God is available to the disciples – the New Israel Jesus is bringing to birth. 

God isn't just Jesus' Abba now, but our Abba, because we live in him, in Christ; we're grafted into his relationship with his Father; our names are scribbled on Christ's birth certificate. To experience and know God as Father is to be united with the God's Son and filled with his Holy Spirit of Sonship, “by whom we cry, 'Abba! Father!'” (Romans 8:23). 

The Lord's Prayer isn't for occasional admirers of a generic god. And the Lord's Prayer isn't for “religious” people. The Lord's Prayer is the prayer of the church of Jesus Christ on the journey of discipleship. The Lord's Prayer is the thunderous heartbeat of those who race in the Spirit toward perfect love, to which the Law and the Prophets aim. The Lord's Prayer is a prayer for disciples, because only through Jesus can we truly have God for a Father.

But in praying to God as “our Father,” and not “my Father,” we make this a special prayer. This is not a self-centered prayer. This is not an egotistical prayer. This is not an individualist prayer. This is not an isolated prayer. Christian prayer can't be, because full Christian prayer is always prayer to 'our Father.' Christian prayer is the prayer of the church together, the prayer of the church in fellowship. When we pray the Lord's Prayer, we pray it as one family – and not just us here in this sanctuary. We pray it with all the people of God – past, present, and future. 

When we pray the Lord's Prayer and say 'our' and 'us,' we're including Christian men and women in a Kenyan village; we're including believers languishing under persecution in the Middle East; we're including monks on Mount Athos in Greece, we're including house-churches in China, we're including American believers sued for their livelihoods because they obeyed their Christian conscience, we're including believing Presbyterians and Lutherans and Methodists and Roman Catholics and Baptists here and all over. And when they all pray the Lord's Prayer, they're including us!

And if we could see that more clearly, the fundamental unity of the body of Christ, all our silly feuds would drop. When you pray a Christian prayer, when you pray the Lord's Prayer, you cannot pray alone. Not only do you have Jesus praying for you in heaven and the Spirit praying for you in the deep recesses of your very soul, but you are praying for all believers – and they, whether they think of it or not, are praying for you. 

So if you've ever wished you were better at praying, if you've ever felt inadequate or isolated in your prayer life, if you've ever wondered how your prayers can stand on their own two feet – they've never had to. That's the power of a prayer to “our Father.”

And then Jesus goes on and gives us another word: he invites us to pray to “Our Father in heaven.” Because as close and as intimate as we get to God, we can't forget that there's more to the story. Remember last week's Sunday School lesson? This Father of ours is the very same God who “sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, … who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; … who brings out the [starry] host by number, calling them all by name. … The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 40:22, 26, 28).

Our Father is still the King of the Universe, still the Maker and Sustainer of heaven and earth, still the Owner of the cattle on a thousand hills, still the Consuming Fire to whom the oceans roar and mountains bow. Our Father cannot be reduced to our level, cannot be comprehended, cannot be demystified or demythologized or deciphered or domesticated. He cannot be boxed up or contained, and he most certainly cannot be figured out or familiarized. As vast as the outermost stretches of the universe are distant from the face of the earth, that's how vastly higher are his ways than our ways and his thoughts than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). That is who our Father is. He's not our Father next door. He's “our Father, which art in heaven.” And that calls for faith.

After we've anchored our prayer in those truths, Jesus gives us two sets of three requests. And in the first set, you will not find the words 'me' or 'mine,' or even 'our' or 'us.' We start off the prayer with three petitions that are entirely about God. Who do we pray for first? God himself. God is the top priority in prayer. And we lead off with the first request: “Hallowed be thy name” – or, in modern language, “May your name be sanctified.” That is a very Jewish prayer – the whole Lord's Prayer is very Jewish as a whole in its themes and style, but without anything that would make Gentile members of Jesus' New Israel feel like outsiders. And we can tell how Jewish this line is, because the earliest form of a key Jewish prayer called the Kaddish went like this:

May his great name be exalted and sanctified, in the world which he created according to his will! May he establish his kingdom during your lifetime and during your days, and during the lifetimes of all the House of Israel, speedily and very soon! And say, Amen.

The three God-focused requests in the Lord's Prayer – sanctifying God's name, establishing God's kingdom, and even God's will – are all there. And to sanctify God's name means to treat his name and reputation as special, as important; it means to act in a way that glorifies him. The rabbis said that one might sanctify God's name by being kind to unbelievers, or by suffering for his sake, or by obeying his commandments and doing good works. And that matches with what Jesus already said: that our good works should shine before others to lead them to glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). That's what we want to see.

Jesus is probably thinking about the Book of Ezekiel right now. Ezekiel was told to “prophesy to the mountains of Israel” (Ezekiel 36:1), to tell them that their misbehavior not only sent them into exile, but – even worse – “profaned my holy name” in front of the nations. “But I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations to which they came” (Ezekiel 36:20-21). God promised to act in a way that would “vindicate the holiness of my great name” (Ezekiel 36:23), and that was by gathering the exiles, sprinkling them clean, giving them a new heart, and putting his Spirit within them – in short, by giving them, giving us, the new covenant (Ezekiel 36:24-28). Even dry bones can live again, when the Spirit is present (Ezekiel 37:1-14). 

And when the end comes, which Ezekiel describes as a battle with Gog of Magog, God promises to finally defeat evil – “So I will show my greatness and my holiness and make myself known in the eyes of many nations; then they will know that I am the LORD (Ezekiel 38:23). That's what it looks like for God's name to be hallowed – and that's what we want to see, what we want the world to see! We know that Jesus prayed, “Father, glorify your name.” And what answer thundered from heaven? “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (John 12:28). Hallelujah!

Where does the Lord's Prayer go from there? “May your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10). That's a little bit unusual, because Jews usually talked about the kingdom being revealed or being established, not coming. But they spoke about God coming to them. And Jesus is combining the two, because in Jesus, God and the kingdom arrived together; and through us, God's presence is further unfolding and the kingdom is being further revealed; and we pray for the day when Jesus will return, and we behold the Father, and the kingdom is set up in full. Of course, this means we have to admit that utopia, a perfect world, isn't something we can engineer or invent or just naturally evolve into. No project, no politician, no simple answer will give it to us; only the gospel of the kingdom holds out that hope, that promise.

And the third request isn't so different: “May your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). These are the same words Jesus uses in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he puts the Father's plan to save us over his healthy human instinct for self-preservation: “Not my will, but may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42). Put together, these lines deal with the question: What do you, what do we, want most for the world? And the right answer is: for everything to be put right, for everything to be fixed and made whole. We want to see God visibly running things and all creation cooperating. And that's already started in Jesus' ministry, and it's ongoing somehow through the church's mission, but we're longing for God to get exactly what God wants, for God to be obviously and effectually the King of the Universe.

In other words, we want God to be clearly on earth what heaven already sees – “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). That's a daring prayer, because only a kingdom-ready people can pray it with a full heart. Only the people we see in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). Only the people whose “righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” can “enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20ff.). That's discipleship – getting readier and readier. And so the disciple church dares to pray for God's name to be sanctified, for God's kingdom to come, for God's will to be done. All of those things are the best blessing we can pray for creation.

That's the model for Christian prayer. We don't come to God with all our impressive wordiness and flattery; we don't come to God hesitantly or fearfully; we come to God together, as one body of Christ living by the Spirit of Christ, and name him as our Father, without forgetting his heavenly greatness. And the first thing on our new heart is him: his glory, his holiness, his rule, his will – because that's the only way for creation to run right, for all the evil of fallen human history to come undone, and for our deepest longings and creation's direst groanings to be answered. And then, only then, do we turn to ourselves in a second set of three requests.

And how do we start? “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Not, “We can make our own daily bread, thank you very much.” Not, “Give us this day a lifetime supply of bread.” And not, “Give us this day our daily filet mignon.” We're asking for what's actually essential, what we actually need – not all the luxuries we might dream of. We can live without daily filet mignon, but not without daily bread – that's the basics, the stuff of life. Like Paul said, “We brought nothing into the world, and we can't take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:7-8).

That's all we're asking: the basic necessities of life, freeing us up from day-to-day anxieties so we can keep living for God's glory. And when we get it, we disavow credit – it's first and foremost a gift of God, not the work of our hands or the purchase of our wallets. In asking for our daily bread, we're depending on God to provide what we need, when we need it, while we need it, just like God gave manna to Israel day by day in the desert (Exodus 16:4).

It's easy for us here in America to pray this line flippantly. Most of us have never had to worry about our daily bread; we've never been food insecure. But many people in Jesus' crowd that day were subsistence farmers, who really wondered whether they'd have something to eat tomorrow. My dad's mom's four grandparents were all immigrants – they came from German colonies along the Volga River in Russia; and they left because they knew the Russians would treat them badly. And as the decades passed, those left behind finally faced genocide under Josef Stalin – they fought to the death over single kernels of wheat, and many were taken into the labor camps. And one of their poets responded with this prayer of despair:

Our Father – are you still in heaven? Then listen how your name is abused as a curse, how your will is spurned in Stalin's hell on earth. The tyrant and his henchmen have power over life and death; and they take from us our daily bread and let us die like dogs from hunger.

Even to this day, food insecurity is a reality for most of the world. And when we pray the Lord's Prayer, we're not just praying for ourselves; we're praying for our brothers and sisters who are literally starving, and for our own real needs, too, for life and ministry. We're praying for an end to scarcity, not through the heaps of plenty we've stacked high here in America, but through God's simple daily provision – maybe even his provision through us, if we dare to think about it.

After we've prayed for our basic needs, Jesus invites us to pray for forgiveness. “Forgive us our debts,” he says (Matthew 6:12). Those listening to him were mostly Galilean peasants, farmers, workers – they knew what it meant to live in constant fear of debt. That's why so many of Jesus' parables are built around the theme of debt. And the Aramaic word for 'debt' and 'sin' is one and the same. We have a moral 'debt' to God – and we confess here in this prayer that we have plenty of them. All of us do. We are in debt up to our eyeballs, falling hopelessly behind. But God's Law offered the Jubilee cancellation of debts, and that's what we so desperately need! We need God to cancel out our debts, to forgive us! We don't just need to live; we need to live free.

We know that Jesus came to provide it; not only did he sign our debts to himself and pay them on the cross, but he sparked the eternal jubilee by his resurrection. There's forgiveness and grace abounding so much farther than we ever could have dreamed! But Jesus invites us to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). He comments, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you don't forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). 

Strictly speaking, that's not a condition; but Jesus does teach us that forgiveness is the fruit of a forgiven life. And if we aren't filled with a Spirit of forgiveness, that might be a sign that we haven't found it ourselves. We all remember, maybe, Jesus' parable of the ungrateful servant – forgiven a massive debt, but refusing to forgive a small debt to a fellow-servant, so his master reinstates the massive debt and throws him into debtor's prison (Matthew 18:21-35)? Don't be like that. That's why we commit ourselves here to being people of forgiveness, as a sign of how much our Father has forgiven us. We pledge to God that we will release everyone from being indebted to us.

And finally, the last of the three petitions, in two parts: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). The first part echoes another Jewish prayer from the rabbis: “Do not bring me into sin, or into iniquity, or into temptation, or into contempt” (b. Berakhot 60b); and the second reminds us of the Dead Sea Scrolls, with the prayer, “Do not let Satan rule over me” (11QPsa 19.15; 4QTLevi 21.17).

Put together, it's a very realistic prayer! The word for 'temptation' is the same word for 'tribulation' or 'trial.' In this world, we are going to face that – a lot. We will find ourselves in situations where Satan aims to entice us to avoid suffering or gain pleasure by straying away from faithfulness to God. When the crucifixion was just around the bend, Jesus warned his disciples to be careful, or else they'd fall into that temptation (Matthew 26:41). 

So here we ask God to protect us through this perilous life, to keep us from falling victim to Satan's clutches and lures, from giving in and going astray. We ask God to prepare us, equip us, and lead us safely through, so that evil doesn't dig its hooks and snares into us. And that's the third most important thing we can pray for ourselves: we need to live through God's provision, we need to live free through God's mercy, and we need to live right through God's protection and guidance.

That's where Matthew's text ends. In a Jewish prayer, after the set points had been covered, it was customary for people to then add on any remaining personal requests they had. And so may we. Once we've realized who God is to us, once we've focused our prayers on him and what's good for the world, and once we've covered the three most foundational needs we have, then God invites us to bring to him whatever else is on our heart, what specifically concerns us. And the Lord's Prayer will keep it in its place. Once we've set our hearts on God's kingdom, bowed to his will, and given thought to what we really need, then we'll see where our priorities should be. And like God's dear children, we can safely blurt out what's left.

And finally, Jewish prayers typically ended with some kind of doxology – a final set of praises. A few copies of Matthew's Gospel – not the oldest ones, but a few of them – include the doxology we know the early Christians used at the end of the Lord's Prayer: “For yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever, Amen” (cf. Didache 8:2). And wherever this started, it's a short version of David's great doxology from 1 Chronicles that goes like this:

Blessed are you, O LORD, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever. Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name. (1 Chronicles 29:10-13)

Ain't that the truth! And all that gets condensed down to just a couple words – but just the right words. Friends, this is prayer like Jesus teaches us. It's simple, it's short, it's sweet, it anchors us in who God is to us and who we are to each other, and it brings us together to focus on God, the world, and our needs before we get to our wants and close with a glorious bang. What more could you ask for? Pray with confidence. Pray with passion. Pray like this, with the Lord's Prayer as the model for what Christian prayer is at heart, and watch what God will do. May our whole lives be like the Lord's Prayer. Amen. Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Covert Church: Sermon on Matthew 6:1-18

Good morning, brothers and sisters! For the last seven weeks, we've been digging into the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus preached the greatest message of all time – there's just no doubt about it. Jesus sat down on the side of the mountain and taught the crowds in Galilee, any who cared to listen. And to this weak band of outcasts, he promised the very kingdom of God. He blessed them, he called them to a mission of being salt and light in the world. He summoned them to a righteousness beyond what they'd been taught. 

And then he instructed them, showing how to unpack what's in the Law. Where the Law tells us not to murder, the Spirit purges us of anger and makes us peaceful, conciliatory. Where the Law tells us not to commit adultery, the Spirit purges us of lust and makes us pure, chaste. Where the Law regulates divorce, the Spirit trains us in contentment. Where the Law regulates our oaths and promises, the Spirit purges us of deceitful manipulation and makes us truthful, candid. Where the Law outlines retaliatory justice, the Spirit strengthens us to protest injustice in better ways. And where the Law reminds us to love our neighbor, the Spirit gives us loving hearts for even our enemies. Because the Spirit conforms us to Christ, who is the very image of God. And so God's complete love and righteousness is the standard: “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

And now in this morning's passage – really, unless you count Jesus' commentary on the Law all together, this is the longest chunk of the Sermon on the Mount dealing with a single underlying topic. This morning's passage shows Jesus turning from interpreting the Law to taking up the three pillars of Jewish righteousness – three main spiritual disciplines, three practices that every observant Jew would have admitted were essential, and yet Jesus diagnoses how they can go wrong and how to fix them.

I'm going to talk about them in a slightly different order this morning. In the middle, Jesus talks about maybe the most central one, the one we practice the most. And that's prayer. Jesus doesn't directly tell us to pray. And neither, as a matter of fact, did the Law. There's no command in there, “Thou shalt pray,” per se. But the Bible from cover to cover assumes that God's people do pray. 

Prayer, most basically, is just talking with God. And if there is a God (as we know there is), and if he cares about us (as we know he does), and if he chooses to listen to us (as he promises in Christ), then prayer is awfully important. Prayer is gaining an audience with the King of the Universe. Every Jew would have admitted that – many Jewish prayers began with the formula, “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe,” and then go on to praise him for some gift he's given. And prayer allows us to ask for what we need – to not just fellowship with God, but to ask him to change the world in and around us in some way for the better.

We're used to doing that all the time. And we can. But the Jews also had three major sessions of prayer each day – the observant ones did, anyway. They noticed that as Sodom and Gomorrah smoldered, Abraham got up early in the morning to return to where he'd last been in God's presence (Genesis 19:27). And so the Jews practiced Shacharit, a morning prayer service after sunrise. 

And then they noticed that in the middle of the day, Isaac ventured out into the fields to talk with God (Genesis 24:63). And they tied that to the meal offering every day at the temple. And so the Jews practiced Mincha, an afternoon prayer service. 

And then they noticed that Jacob had communed with God after nightfall, when he rested his head on a pillow of stone and dreamed of a ladder to heaven (Genesis 28:11). And so the Jews practiced Maariv, an evening prayer service. 

The three patriarchs inspired three prayer services every day – and these are no spontaneous, muddle-minded thoughts served up to God. These are extended prayers written out in the siddur, the Jewish prayer book. They involve standing, facing Jerusalem, taking steps forward and back, bending your knees, even bowing. And this happens every day, three times a day. It maybe seems unfamiliar to us, but observant Jews still follow it, and Muslims have five daily prayers that involve standing, facing Mecca, and various bodily motions like sitting, bowing, prostrating, hand gestures.

Jesus assumes that the people listening to him will understand, when he's talking about prayer, it includes that. And then Jesus talks about the next pillar of Jewish righteousness. And that's the practice of fasting. Fasting was going without food, or even food and water, for a time – maybe sunrise to sunset, maybe sunset to sunset. It was a way to express self-denial, a way to communicate grief, a way to clear the heart and mind and focus on God. In seven verses in the Bible, fasting is mentioned alongside prayer. There was a yearly fast on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27-32).

Fasting crops up over and over again in response to a national crisis, which in Israel usually was because the people had strayed from God. So Samuel has everyone fast when the Philistines are oppressing them (1 Samuel 7:6); Daniel personally fasts when he realizes the exile will last seventy years (Daniel 9:3); and Nehemiah personally fasts when he hears Jerusalem's ruins are ruined worse (Nehemiah 1:4). Those were all moments of national crisis and grief. And even here in America, presidents from Washington to Lincoln used to call for “days of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer” in response to special need.

And then there were personal fasts in response to personal crises, like the psalmist mentions: “I wept and humbled my soul with fasting” (Psalm 69:10). One Jewish book written sometime later, a biography of Adam and Eve – yeah, somebody tried that – describes Adam as fasting for forty days after leaving Paradise. And the Bible itself says that Moses fasted for forty days when he went up Mount Sinai to get the Law (Deuteronomy 9:9), and Elijah fasted as he returned there for a spiritual retreat (1 Kings 19:8). We know that Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert after his baptism (Matthew 4:2), and he said his disciples would begin fasting after he had departed from us (Matthew 9:15). He knows that the Pharisees fast twice a week (Luke 18:12), and Jesus assumes this is something we will practice.

Finally, Jesus assumes that we will practice the third pillar of Jewish righteousness: almsgiving. Some versions just say, “giving to the needy.” There were silver boxes at the temple, maybe at the synagogues as well, where coins could be dropped in for the poor – and, of course, people might directly give to the poor. In addition to the tithe to support the priests and Levites, ancient Israel had a special tithe every three years for the needy (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). This wasn't optional; it was something expected of every Jewish household, to set aside resources to be distributed to those in need. Jewish law now recognizes the maaser kesafim, a tithe for charity, as a universal obligation. And the Bible tells us that “he who is generous to the needy honors … his Maker” (Proverbs 14:31), that “whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed” (Proverbs 19:17). Jesus doesn't seem to think he has to tell us to do that; it's so obvious it doesn't even need an additional commandment. Jesus' people will give to the needy; he takes that as a given.

Prayer, fasting, charity – the three pillars of Jewish righteousness. Three visible expressions of the observant Jewish life, and three practices Jesus assumes his followers will keep doing on a regular basis. But here's the problem. Jesus knows that religion can be distorted. The very things God gives us to serve him and bless the world, we have a knack for perverting for our own self-interest. Jesus has been spelling that out for a whole chapter already, highlighting how people were twisting the Law to excuse the badness of their hearts. And now he goes on and points out that the Pharisees have found ways to twist the three pillars of righteousness into three pitfalls of self-righteousness.

Prayer is good. Prayer can and should be a way of getting closer to God. But prayer was never meant to be a performance. Prayer was never meant to be a means of getting credit for how good we are at praying. But the Pharisees Jesus knew were all about getting credit for how good and righteous they were, or at least seemed to be. The whole point, for them, was exposure – it was a chance for a photo op, we'd say today. Now, if you knew there were three scheduled prayer services, and you wanted to impress people, you might time your day out so that the time of prayer just so 'happens' to catch you in public, on the street corner, for everybody to see (Matthew 6:5). Think of a politician who makes a point to show up at a prayer rally – so long as somebody with a camera will be there to capture them for the media. Or, if you're at church, you might volunteer to be prayer leader so you can show off how good you are at it. That's not what prayer is for. But it's a temptation: to use prayer as an opportunity to perform for the people around you. That's dysfunctional religion.

Jesus gives another example: the Gentiles “heap up empty phrases,” they use “many words” and think those will make their god hear them better (Matthew 6:7). They strive for eloquence, they want to get it just right, and since they aren't sure which title their god likes the best, or even which god might be listening, they toss a bunch in in hopes of getting it right. Instead of prayer being about honest fellowship, heartfelt communication, it becomes a performance and a stab-in-the-dark. It becomes detached from real meaning. The phrases don't mean anything, really, to the person praying them. I mentioned the five daily prayers performed by Muslims; I should mention that those have to be prayed in Arabic, even if the person doesn't understand a word of it. And the gestures have to be just right, for the prayer to be accepted. But don't think I'm picking on Muslims here: our own ancestors a thousand years ago listened along to prayers in Latin they mostly couldn't understand. And that is dysfunctional religion. It's prayer as a performance, prayer as a mere ritual.

Fasting is good. Fasting can and should be a way of getting closer to God. But fasting was never meant to be a performance. Fasting was never meant to be a means of getting credit for how serious we are about fasting. Yet Jesus portrays some people as doing just that. They “look gloomy,” they “disfigure their faces so that their fasting may be seen by others” (Matthew 6:16). They don't take a bath. They don't change clothes. They walk around with ashes on their heads and contort their faces into pitiful looks and puppy-dog eyes so that everybody will look at them and think, “Now that guy's really suffering; that guy is really committed; that guy must be so holy.” They turn it into a show. Their fasting is a performance for the people who see them out and about. And that is dysfunctional religion.

And almsgiving, charity, is good. It can and should be a way of getting closer to God and serving those around us. But it was never meant to be a performance. Charity was never meant to be a means of getting credit for how generous we are. Yet Jesus knows of people who do exactly that. He paints an exaggerated picture for us, unveiling the heart that underlies this. Imagine somebody who parades through the streets, people blowing trumpets in front of him, while he shouts, “Look at how generous I am, handing all this money to these poor people right here!” Talk about unseemly! I don't know if anybody ever literally did that – but certainly they did make sure their coins made a loud, satisfying clunk in the alms box at the synagogue and temple – or, for that matter, that their large bill was conspicuously placed in the offering plate for all to see. That's charity as a show, a performance. And that is dysfunctional religion.

Jesus says that people who do these things are hypocrites – and that word literally means “play-actors,” like the people in the theater who wear masks to occupy a role that isn't actually them in real life. These hypocrites are play-acting religion for the sake of the crowd. Their outward piety is a mask for their inner vainglory. They make a display of being holier-than-thou, because they want people to admire them, to look up to them, to see them as religious role models. But it's all on the outside. The insides of their prayers, their fasting, their charity isn't about God; it isn't about the state of their souls. It's about appearances, about selfish gain. But even if they really did mean some of what they were doing, they still have a problem. They're spiritual show-offs.

We'd like to think we're better than the Pharisees. But Jesus is not preaching the Sermon on the Mount to teach us how to judge and condemn people – even 'religious' people, as some think. Jesus is instructing us how to scrutinize our own hearts, our own lives, not our neighbors' lives. He wants each of us to ask: “When I pray, am I putting on a show for people around me? When I suffer, do I try to act the martyr and earn sympathy for my sorrow or applause for my 'bravery'? When I give or do good to people, am I looking for a pat on the back? When I preach or evangelize or just talk about God, am I looking for credit?” 

Because, Jesus says, those who perform their religion for earthly credit will find their reward there – in earthly credit. And nothing more. “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16) – their full reward, with nothing stored up in heaven beyond it. God gives no credit for the religion we perform for the crowds. The issues isn't so much where we practice these pillars of righteousness as why we do it – what's our motivation? “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).

That's the problem with the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. They make a pretty show on the outside, Jesus says, but that's a hypocritical mask. “You clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:25, 27-28). 

Is that us? Too often, it just might be. Too often, we're tempted to look to get credit. And that's one of the culture's bigger complaints about Christians – that we come across as holier-than-thou, that we're looking to posture as our neighbors' moral superiors, that we talk a good talk but don't walk the walk. In short, that we're hypocrites. We're spiritual show-offs. And while our culture may be no better in the service of their professed ideals, Jesus calls us to have a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees – and exceeds the righteousness of 'cultural Christianity' (Matthew 5:20).

What kind of righteousness exceeds theirs? Jesus tells us. It's a righteousness that isn't focused on ourselves and how good we are. It's a righteousness that's focused on God and how good he is. It's a righteousness that isn't concerned with appearances but with reality. It's a righteousness that glorifies God. It's a 'secret' kind of righteousness – the practices of a 'covert church.' That may be hard to square with what Jesus already said, about letting our light shine publicly for others to see: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works...” Isn't that exactly what Jesus is criticizing here? Not if we let him finish: “...that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14). 

In short, here's Jesus' tip for us: what makes you look good, hide – even from yourself, if possible. Don't dwell on it, don't let pride infest your heart, don't seek a religious reputation, don't look for credit. But what makes God look good, show with gusto. Point to him, not yourself.

So Jesus advises us to pray simple, secret prayers. Instead of heaping up words, trust that God is your Father – he “knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). You don't have to worry about getting him to notice you. He's been paying attention to you since before you opened your mouth. And your prayer doesn't have to be fancy or elaborate. Short and simple is just fine with God, because he's not impressed by how thick your thesaurus is; he's looking at your heart. And so Jesus gives us a short sample prayer to teach us how to cover the key bases (Matthew 6:9-13) – we'll look more at that next week. 

And instead of making an effort to be somewhere visible and prominent when the time to pray rolls around, Jesus gives us the opposite image: “When you pray, go into your pantry and shut the door and pray to your Father who lives in secret” (Matthew 6:6). Does that mean we can't pray together? No. Jesus prayed for his disciples where they could see (John 17:1-26). Does that mean we can't pray outside? No. Jesus held his early-morning prayer retreats outside. But the lesson is clear. Prayer should be separated from performance as far as the context allows; the focus should be on God, and that's most evident when nobody besides God can see you do it. Instead of looking to be seen, look to be hidden.

And when it comes to fasting, Jesus doesn't recommend to us the flashy fast of disfigured faces and big public displays. Instead, he tells us, “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face” (Matthew 6:17). In other words, clean yourself up so that people can't even tell by looking at you that you are fasting. That way, “your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:18). Instead of making a show of your suffering, instead of trying to garner sympathy or praise, live out what God asks of you without ostentation. That doesn't mean concealing your burdens from your brothers and sisters in Christ, because we're commanded to bear one another's burdens, which is hard if we don't share them with each other. But it does mean that, when we respond to suffering in the right way, we'd rather do it in private for God than in public for one another.

And when it comes to charity, Jesus tells us, “Don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret” (Matthew 6:3). In other words, when you see a Salvation Army box, sneak up on it! Put your coins in the plate softly and discreetly; fold your bills to hide the numbers! In a world where the rich would fund building projects just so they could be honored with inscriptions lauding how kind and goodhearted they were, Jesus recommends private giving, anonymous generosity.

Today, as we celebrate Harvest Home, you can see a collection of gifts for the needy in front of the altar rail. This is our almsgiving. And if you look closely, no one's name is attached to any of the gifts. Unless you've been watching people bring things in and set them down, you probably don't know who contributed what, for the most part. Nothing here says which things Wilmer and Mary Jane brought, which things Joe brought, which things I brought, and so on. These gifts are anonymous. And now that we've blessed them together, we're going to take them to The Factory Ministries Food Pantry. And once they get there, they won't bear a label that says they came from Pequea EC Church, just as the other food and supplies in the food pantry won't be labeled with the church, the charity, or the business that donated them. Again, anonymous giving. The only thing that matters is that it serves those in need and does so in the name of Jesus.

The Factory Ministries is affiliated with the Together Initiative, and we're currently reviewing their philosophy of service to decide about becoming a full partner church. And as I've sat and talked with leaders of the Together Initiative, do you know the slogan they use to guide them? It's this: “What could we do if we didn't care who” – who on earth, that is – “gets the credit?” Isn't that a beautiful way to express the joyfulness of what Jesus is saying in this passage? “What could we do if we didn't care who gets the credit?” 

Jesus is setting us free from our need to perform. Jesus is setting us free from our hunger for a crowd's applause and approval. Jesus is setting us free to love God and to love our neighbors and neighborhoods without getting bogged down in ourselves. That's the boundless horizon of what we can do when we don't care which of us, or which of our churches, gets the credit.

Instead of acting from earthly motives like human approval, we can act from heavenly motives, like the glory of God and the imitation of his complete, whole-hearted love for one and all. That's no longer dysfunctional religion. That's pure, well-functioning religion – the kind that's all about our relationship with a Father who loves to spend time with us and work through us. Be holy as the Father is holy. Be perfect as the Father is perfect. Be secretly righteous as the Father is secretly righteous.

And Jesus gives us a promise. Earlier, he kept saying that those who put on a religious act out of earthly motives will get all their reward in this life. If they're looking for human approval, well, maybe they'll get it. And that's the end of their reward. God has little to nothing to do with their religiosity, so he has no interest in rewarding them (Matthew 6:1). 

But what about those who live out righteousness from heavenly motives? Jesus says it three times, so we can't miss it: “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18). That's not to say we do it to try to earn his favor. We can't. He favors and blesses us already in Christ, in advance and even in spite of everything we say and do. And yet God does promise that a heavenly reward is naturally tied to sincere prayer, sincere fasting, and sincere generosity that glorifies him.

So that's our challenge this week. Don't let Harvest Home be the end of your journey into 'secret,' 'covert' righteousness. Keep being a covert church – covert as pertains to our credit, overt as pertains to the glory and love of God. Listen to what Jesus says about how to live a 'religious' life – how to do righteousness – without seeking credit for yourself but giving glory to the Father. 

Step away from performance and into the honest truth. Pray for him, fast for him, give alms for him, evangelize for him, live for him. Check your heart and turn it over to him for review. It may not be easy to strip ourselves of our need for approval. But we have the Spirit as the power-granting promise that God already approves of who we are in Christ – and that he always will. That's what his kingdom is all about. May we always live with our focus fixed on him. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Crazy Church?: Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48

Fifteen years. Fifteen trips around the sun. It's hard to believe, isn't it? Fifteen years ago today, a generation came face-to-face with what evil looks like. A generation saw for the first time what it's like to be targeted. All of us faced the first act of war on our home soil in living memory for any of us here this morning. 

Fifteen years ago... By the time we started this worship service, American Airlines Flight 11 had already hit the first tower. United Airlines Flight 175 had just barely struck the second tower. And right about now, here we come into the position again where we were when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. And right this very moment, fifteen years ago, quick-thinking Captain Jason Dahl, on the verge of death, was still struggling with hijacker Ziad Jarrah for control of United Airlines Flight 93. Before I finish this morning's message, we'll come 'round again to the point in time when a brave passenger named Todd Beamer prayed the Lord's Prayer and Psalm 23 with a phone operator before joining a passenger revolt that stopped the plane from striking either the White House or the Capitol building.

By this time fifteen years ago, American leaders had already realized who was behind the most devastating terrorist attack in our history: Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist network. Eleven years earlier, during the days of the Gulf War, we established a military base in Saudi Arabia to help defend them against Saddam's forces, with King Fahd's permission. Even after the war closed, we stuck around, just in case. Bin Laden was horrified – he thought our army was occupying and defiling Muslim holy land. So in 1996, he took it upon himself, a veteran of uprising against the Soviets in Afghanistan, to declare war on us. 

Over the next five years, he collected more and more complaints. In his eyes, democracy was a form of idolatry, because it gave power to the people when he thought that power was God's alone; so in his view, Saudi Arabia's acceptance of our wishes meant that we'd induced them to worship our president in God's place. And because of democracy, Bin Laden concluded that every American civilian shared responsibility. So he publicly called for our deaths. To him, American lives weren't sacred; we have no more value than cows.

Bin Laden believed in two things: hatred and revenge. He convinced himself he was avenging his world against offenses we'd given. He said that women should nurse their children “on the hatred of Jews and Christians,” that “battle, animosity, and hatred … is the foundation of [his] religion,” and that his twisted perversion of Islam should be imposed on Western powers like America with force. 

In the years that followed Bin Laden's assault, his network fractured. The branch in Iraq got extreme. Bin Laden, for all his madness, cared about popular support; his Iraqi affiliate leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi didn't. Al-Qaeda in Iraq got too violent and reckless for even Bin Laden's taste, so they cut ties. 

And in time, this severed branch morphed into ISIS. Whatever hate and vengefulness were in Bin Laden's heart, their new leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi multiplied. He explicitly calls on his followers to hate their enemies, says that loving others is an offense to his god; and in his first public sermon, he swore, “By God, we will take revenge! Even if it takes a while, we will take revenge, and every amount of harm against the ummah will be responded to with multitudes more against the perpetrator.”

Those are the evil words of an evil man with evil ideas and an evil heart. There's no parsing them as anything else. That is a man so bitter, so obsessed, so possessed by demonic influence, that it's difficult to understand. None of us, after all, share the evil ideas of a Bin Laden or a Baghdadi. But for some of us, September 11 and provocations like it have exposed a harsh truth. And the harsh truth is that we, too, may be harboring a vengeful heart – maybe not so degenerate as his, but vengeful all the same. 

In the days after 9/11, the American president gave a number of forceful, well-worded speeches, and in his public speeches he hit just the right tone: he called us to pursue the perpetrators and bring them to justice; he called us to stand together as a nation; he urged us not to blame our Muslim neighbors for the way Bin Laden's cronies had hijacked their religion. But on the day of the attacks itself, strained with stress aboard Air Force One, filled with righteous anger, the president cursed them and said, “Somebody's going to pay.” Some of the language, I can't repeat here. He said we would “hunt down and destroy whoever did this,” that we wouldn't let them off with “a little slap on the wrist,” but that we would find and avenge ourselves against them.

I think many, most, or all of us had similar thoughts. You can see it in our post-9/11 films, hear it in our post-9/11 music. It's true that millions of us stuck together in ways we never had before – rescuers marching to certain death to save others, people remaining by the dying to give comfort at great risk, and many more opting to donate blood or volunteer or otherwise show love. But as we learned what had happened, we became rightly angry – and, sometimes, vengeful, which was not so right. And sadly, not all of our countrymen listened to the president's wise words; some did indeed lash out at anyone who looked even vaguely Middle Eastern.

That's no surprise. The confrontation with Bin Laden's hate exposed our own vengeful hearts, too. Vengeance is the sinful perversion of our anger (righteous or unrighteous) and our God-given yearning for justice – for the restoration of righteous order and balance in a world gone haywire. A desire for vengeance is nothing new. It has a distinguished history all the way back to Cain, who compensated for his feelings of inferiority by bloodily avenging himself on his righteous brother Abel. It finds fuller fruit in Cain's descendant Lamech, who boasted, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain's revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech's is seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:23-24).

So in time, every nation tried to find ways to regulate the human desire for vengeance and turn it into justice. And if you look at the laws of the early pagan nations, you'll see some real problems. Some of them valued life too cheaply, allowing easy payments for every crime, even grievous bodily injury. And so the rich could hurt whomever they pleased without fear. Other law codes went to excess, punishing even minor crimes with great harshness. But most law codes managed both faults. They distinguished between free and slave, or upper-class and lower-class. Even the best pagan law said that if a nobleman assaults a nobleman, then the punishment is eye for eye, tooth for tooth, broken bone for broken bone; but if he assaults a commoner, the only pain he feels is in his wallet; while if a commoner assaults him with even a slap, the man loses an ear.

The laws God gave to Moses weren't like that. They made no distinctions based on socioeconomic class. They put the brakes on attempts to let the rich or political insiders off with a slap on the wrist. But at the same time, they kept the firm guidelines for punishment that restrained our tendency to escalate things. “Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deuteronomy 19:21). “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done, it shall be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. … You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 24:19-22; cf. Matthew 5:38). That was the Law: justice without double standards and without the spiraling cycle of vengeance.

Even so, people are what people are. Over time, they hunted through the Law for a pretext for what was already in their hearts. And so popular thought came to be that, if the Law said, “Love your neighbor,” that means those who are just like you, those whose natural interests are tied up in yours. Everybody else is fair game – love the good guys, hate the rest. 

And to first-century Jews, that especially goes for the Roman oppressors. Hating them was practically mandatory – they were, after all, the enemy. After all, the Law says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) – so surely foreigners are fair game, they figure. And if someone messes with you, make sure they get what's coming to them. If the courts won't do it, take the law into your own hands, they figured (cf. Matthew 5:43). In other words, people have a natural tendency to be like Lamech.

And now, enter Jesus on the scene. Jesus sat down on the mountainside and reminded the crowd that Lamech's heart and God's heart are so far apart. People like Lamech busy themselves in building up their own little sandcastle kingdoms; they aren't fit to inherit the kingdom of God. And the insecurity of our sandcastle petty kingdoms, especially when we confuse them for God's kingdom, is what really triggers all this need for revenge and retaliation. 

Jesus didn't deny that his countrymen were opposed and oppressed by the Roman soldiers who traipsed to and fro throughout Galilee and Judea, or by their local power-brokers. But Jesus had ideas for protest that would stop the cycle of revenge in its tracks.

One of the greatest insults you might receive, in those days, was a slap on the right cheek. Because for a right-handed person to hit you on the right cheek, they had to use the back of their hand. It was actually a punishable offense, because it was a way of implying you were beneath your attacker. In response, you might strike back. You might take them to court. You might wage war with fists or words. But Jesus invites the crowd to try turning the other cheek – yes, inviting further abuse, but silently insisting that if they slap you again, they treat you as an equal (Matthew 5:39).

Or you might face a lawsuit yourself. And if you were a poor Galilean, you'd be afraid of losing your tunic. But at least you had one thing no lawsuit was allowed to take from you: your cloak. Because the cloak was the most essential; it doubled like a sleeping bag, and could be perilous to lose overnight (Exodus 22:26-27). And so Jesus invites the crowd to answer a lawsuit in a daring way: if they want to take your tunic, hand over your cloak as well (Matthew 5:40). Rather than a cycle of revenge, now the one filing the lawsuit has some hard choices to make.

Or you might be conscripted by a Roman soldier, who legally had authority to force Jews to carry equipment for a tolerable distance – usually they recommended one Roman mile, because anything more risked sparking an uprising or a riot. To be seen making someone carry the equipment further was to invite suspicion. So Jesus invites the crowd to concede the first mile and then voluntarily carry the equipment for a second – providing more loving service while also making the Roman soldier consider the risks (Matthew 5:41). I wonder how many soldiers, after run-ins with Jesus-followers, were shamed into finding other ways to get their stuff from place to place. And in the process, those who followed Jesus' instructions regained what the Roman occupation was meant to snuff out: their dignity. And dignity frees us up to hold everything lightly, letting us give freely to those in need (Matthew 5:42).

And so then Jesus Christ went one step further. He struck at the root. The problem, he points out, isn't merely with the little injustices people do to us. The problem isn't ultimately in our circumstances. The problem is a narrow, vengeful heart – a heart looking for reasons to be selfish and excuses to fight; a heart focused on pride and self-preservation; a heart set on a sandcastle. And Jesus shows us that God never meant the human heart to get like that. That isn't his design for us. God has a very particular vision for the kind of hearts we should have. He wants to see in us hearts like his. And what Jesus tells us is that God's heart isn't stingy when it comes to love. God doesn't ration out his love as though there isn't enough to go around. He gives gifts to the worst of the worst. He never deprived even the Romans of sunshine or rainfall (Matthew 5:45). His love isn't a mere feeling; it's a lifestyle of action.

In the face of tremendous evil, we don't really want to admit that. Jesus' words prick and gall us. What does he say, after all? “I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45). Those are intense words, extreme words, life-changing and life-giving words. And to think of them and what they really mean is a pain to the vengeful hearts we may harbor. And reading his words may make you wonder how Jesus would have responded if the Twin Towers had fallen, not in New York City, but in Nazareth. Had Jesus' earthly ministry crossed al-Qaeda's path, what would Jesus have done?

We don't have to simply wonder. We can see for ourselves. There's a gospel-inspired development group in Iraq called the Preemptive Love Coalition. This summer, they sent an aid convoy to take food to refugee camps near Fallujah. Overnight, the trucks got stuck in a rut, and a few team members chose to stay with them to protect it. And then there came the sounds of bullets and rockets in the distance. And soon, less distance. A large convoy of ISIS militants were sweeping through the corridor. The team guarding the food trucks hid in a ditch. The terrorists were close enough to see, close enough to hear on their cell phones. Then the bombs began to drop as American aircraft fired back at ISIS, narrowly missing the aid team.

Some time later, after Fallujah had been secured again, many suspected ISIS fighters were in a detention camp. Conditions there were crowded, unhygienic, without enough food or water to go around. And it would be easy to think, “Too bad for them. They're the enemy. They deserve it.” But the Preemptive Love Coalition had a different idea. They sent a group to the compounds with aid packets – food, water, toothpaste, clothes. And one of the people sent there was Sadiq. Sadiq had been the leader of the aid team that ISIS nearly captured this summer. And before that, Sadiq had been friends with an Iraqi security officer whom ISIS did capture – and executed on video after getting loyal tribal leaders to condemn him to death. 

One of those leaders happened to be at this detention camp. And so Sadiq went. He recognized the man who condemned his friend to death. Sadiq knew exactly what he'd done. And Sadiq said, “You killed my friend. But I've come here to feed you.” And Sadiq lifted a water bottle to the lips of his now-helpless enemy and showed love. I don't actually know if Sadiq is a Christian. The article telling his story didn't say. But Sadiq followed Jesus that day.

Sadiq could see what Jesus would tell us: That even Bin Laden was made in our Father's image, designed for a glory of which he fell so tragically short. That God shines his sun on terrorist training camps, on detention centers, on Ground Zero and Guantanamo Bay, all the same. That his raindrops fall on soldier's helmets and drizzle down al-Baghdadi's beard. That the Father sent Jesus to redeem sinners from every sin, however great or however small. That Jesus came to serve the unworthy, to minister to the morally deformed. That in Jesus we see clearly that God loves his enemies, which all of us were when we didn't know Christ – God loves a world of people who oppose him, whether they march under the black flags of the so-called caliphate or under the red, white, and blue, or under none of the above. And Jesus points, not to Bin Laden, not to al-Baghdadi, not to Cain, not to Lamech, but to the God who loves his enemies – and says, “There's your role model. Be like God.”

These words have been radically liberating. When Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of a co-founder of Hamas, read these words in a Bible, they changedhis life and set him on the path toward a real relationship with Jesus and a lifetime of working toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians. These words helped him lay aside the weight of his heritage of violence and end the cycle. But these words are not easy to follow, to put it mildly! So it's no surprise that these words of Jesus have been oft-rejected and oft-criticized. 

A Christian aid worker who spent time in Afghanistan wrote a memoir, and she quoted these words of Jesus to a roomful of Afghanis. They responded with outbursts: “Crazy!” “Impossible!” “That makes no sense!” And when she told them how Jesus lived it out, and how he prayed for his enemies, they objected that he should have overwhelmed them with force and taught his abusers never to insult or harm him again. They were addicted to the cycle of avenging their honor. And if that means hating and punishing enemies, so be it.

But a hundred or so years ago, a Muslim critic of our faith named Rashid Rida put it all more succinctly, when he wrote that any impartial observer would “see that the Christian teachings are built on exaggeration and excess. Their scripture states: 'Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you,' as in the Gospel of Matthew 5:44. This is exaggeration in love, something of which humans are incapable, as it is beyond their control.” In other words, Rida says, the love we teach is extremism, and we need to be reined in. 

But we might be critics of Jesus, too. Maybe when it comes to this, we're tempted to agree with Rashid Rida. Maybe we don't want to answer terrorism with the greater bravery of love. Because when we actually attempt to put Jesus' words into practice, it really does feel like exaggeration, like excess, like surrender. 

Andrew White, the famed Vicar of Baghdad, pastored a church there in Iraq long after everyone advised him to get out. He's seen terrorism up-close and personal. And after all that, he wrote this:

At the end of every service at St. George's, we say together, “Al-Hubb, al-Hubb, al-Hubb” – which means, “We must love, we must love, we must love.” 'Love' sums up all we are trying to do in Iraq. … Love is vital, but love is not easy – certainly not the love that Jesus spoke about, since he told us to love our enemies. … People resort to violence when they feel something has been taken away from them. Giving love to them, instead of returning violence for violence, is returning to them something that has been lost. Giving love can radically change even seemingly hopeless situations. This is why Jesus tells us to love those who do not love us.

Now, I doubt any of us are likely to come face-to-face with any members of al-Qaeda, ISIS, or any other terror group, for that matter. That's not to say we can't find ways to show love, like committing to pray for them. (I personally also believe that dismantling their ability to carry out their evil designs is a way our nation can show love for both them and their victims.) But while we can pray, I doubt we'll ever be near enough to treat them like Sadiq did. 

But if that's the extreme way our Father calls us to love enemies – if he calls us to love even those enemies – can we do any less for the more ordinary enemies we meet in our day-to-day lives? People who wish us ill, people who compete with us, people whose interests don't mesh with ours, people who treat us as maybe they shouldn't? 

God loves your ex-spouse. God loves your cantankerous co-worker. God loves your business rival. God loves your meddlesome in-laws. God loves your nasty neighbor. God loves the judge who won't give you justice. God loves criminals and terrorists, and God loves you and me and everyone around us. And he calls us to do the same, and to do it in practical actions instead of just mealy-mouthed sentiments and flippantly 'pious' clichés.

This all may be, like Rashid Rida said, “something of which humans are incapable,” something “beyond [our] control.” Rida may have been right. But what he neglected was that a Christian's love is not something that happens under a Christian's control. To follow Jesus means to surrender control to his Spirit. And his Spirit shapes and grows a new heart within us – a heart that's forgiving, not vengeful; a heart that's loving, not hateful; a heart through which God will do what's outside our capability – even loving our enemies. 

The kingdom of God makes us free to do that, and the Spirit of God gives us power to do that. We can love our enemies because we have new hearts, and we grow new hearts in part through practicing loving our enemies.

And when we do that, and the rest of what Jesus has been teaching us – when we aspire to be like God and race in the Spirit toward the Law's goal – then we follow his latest command: “Be ye therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). The word Jesus uses there means 'complete,' 'mature,' 'whole' – he means we need to have complete love-full hearts like God's completely love-full heart. 

Because just loving a few, loving those like us – that's no credit. Even tax collectors do that. Even pagans do that. Even terrorists do that, among their cells (Matthew 5:46-47). But to be cured of the anger that leads to murder, the lust that leads to adultery, the dissatisfaction that leads to divorce, the deceit that necessitates oaths, the resentment that leads to revenge, and to overcome hate with love.... That is to be “conformed to the image of [God's] Son” (Romans 8:29). That is holiness. Because that is wholeness. That is the kind of people God wants to raise.

And what if the church were like really like that? What if we raced together toward the kingdom like that? If we lived by love even for our enemies, might we catch anybody's attention? Maybe they'd think we were crazy – a crazy church. But maybe, just maybe, they'd start asking us for the reason for the hope that's so obviously in us (1 Peter 3:15). And our so-called “craziness” would be a glimpse of the kingdom of God. We need no petty sandcastles; we need not defend our honor or grasp desperately after vengeance in the name of justice. The resurrection of the crucified Christ is proof enough that what matters is safe and secure in God's kingdom. 

So in light of that promise, may we find new ways to be extremists of love, as the Spirit gives vision and power. May our heart as a community be to love our neighbors, even those who don't love us, even those who harm and cheat us. And may the love of Jesus be made clear to all the Welsh Mountain and all the Pequea Valley, 'til his kingdom come. Amen. Amen.